|Backpack||27.02 Miles||2 Days 6 Hrs 39 Mns |
|10,890 ft AEG|
||no linked trail guides|
|After my daughter returned home from an 18-month mission for the LDS church in Northern Peru last August, we (my wife, daughter, and I) returned for a visit. Although my daughter was nowhere near Cusco and had never set eyes on a llama, I told her that if I'm going to Peru, we're going to Machu Picchu .... After that, we could go visit the hot, muggy, northern desert area of Piura where she served (and which takes up little more than a footnote in most of the guidebooks on Peru). [Subsequent Note: The people of Piura are amazing, and we loved that portion of our trip as well.]
Thus began planning for our 4-day/3-night trek on the Inca Trail.
After first spending 3 days in Cusco at 11,000 feet, and touring the city and surrounding Sacred Valley (an amazing experience in itself--those Incas were really, really OCD about fitting rocks together), we were somewhat acclimatized and ready to hit the trail.
By government regulation, all traffic on the Inca Trail is required to be booked through an approved tour company--something that must be done about 5-6 months in advance during the busy season (May-Aug). So, the night before our departure, we met with our tour guide--Raul Castro [he flew in from Cuba, just for us ] , who walked us through our itinerary. I was a bit disappointed that our third night's campsite was still far from Machu Picchu, which would make for a relatively short 2nd and 3rd day, and a very long 4th day--arise at 1 a.m., hike in the dark, arrive at MP in the afternoon, with an additional hike up Huayna Picchu, then return by train/bus to Cusco at 11 p.m. We asked if there were another camping option for night 3; Raul said he would see what he could do, but said the government (which he pronounced "gooberment") assigned the camp locations and wasn't particularly flexible ....
We weren't going to let the campsite situation dampen our spirits, and on the bright side, while we thought our threesome would be part of a larger tour group, it turned out that our group was just the three of us --along with our tour guide Raul, a cook, and two porters to carry tents, food, and cooking gear. This turned out to be a great advantage, as we were not tied to any one else's speed or agenda, which allowed us to be more flexible.
Day 1 (6.9 miles; 2209 AEG):
Started dark and early at 5:30 a.m., as we met Raul in the lobby of our hotel in Cusco for the drive to the elaborately named trailhead: "Kilometer 82," a few hours' north from Cusco. Our travel accommodations were a bus, which was completely empty other than the three of us, Raul, the driver and 3 other porters who were apparently hitching a ride with us to the TH. We stopped for breakfast at a roadside breakfast joint in the Urubamba Valley and watched the moon set behind the towering Andes, as light clouds swirled under and around the peaks.
After passing through Ollantaytambo, the last major point of civilization (aka tourist trap) before the trailhead, we ventured off into the "wild" a bit more, eventually taking a several-mile, one-way dirt road through several small villages dotting the banks of the Urubamba/Vilcanota River to the Trailhead. Driving anywhere in Peru is a process of "negotiation" with fellow drivers on the road, and this was no different--with our bus alternately being forced to back up to a pull-out spot to allow opposing traffic to pass, while at other times laying on the horn and gesticulating to opposing drivers to find a spot to pull off and let us around.
We reached the TH at KM 82 around 9:30 a.m. or so, and checked our gear, along with several other (larger) groups who were preparing to hit the trail. After checking in with passports, etc. we took our obligatory photo at the "Inca Trail" sign and crossed the bridge over the river and were on our way.
Immediately after crossing the river, the trail climbs 100 feet or so and reminds you that, at well over 8,000 feet, there is a bit of an oxygen deficit for us AZ lowlanders. A quick breather and look back to the TH from where the trail levels out, and we were ready to move on.
I managed to drop and puncture my water bladder in the first mile of the trail (while, ironically, checking it to see if it had a leak ), but thanks to a little nail polish, duct tape, and my best MacGyver impression, we were able to nurse it along so as to be serviceable for the rest of the journey.
The first 2.5 miles of the trail track the river banks and were just "ok" in terms of scenery. Honestly, with prickly pear-type cactus and not a lot of greenery, my photos of this section would probably fit in pretty well with several photosets of AZ hikes. Cool, but not anything worth traveling 1000s of miles to see.
At about the 2.5 mile mark, the trail veers away from the river and up a side drainage, which then becomes the avenue of travel for the remainder of the day, leading to Camp 1 at the small village of Wayllabamba. The scenery gets more interesting from here on out. At the drainage junction, you climb to a point which overlooks the first set of significant ruins across the valley below--Patallacta. The point itself is also adorned with ruins--a military garrison of sorts, which we enjoyed exploring, before heading up the the drainage to our lunch spot.
Lunch (and all other meals) was served in our "dining tent," which the porters/cook hurried ahead and set up in advance of our arrival. (BTW, major props to these porters, who stick around after the "tourists" leave, then clean up/pack up, and hustle to beat the "tourists" to the next spot to set up for the next meal/camp.)
At a fairly leisurely pace, we arrived in Wayllabamba in the late afternoon and set up camp in the backyard of one of the villagers, who make money by renting out their space to tour groups. We bought bottled water from our host family at prices commensurate with the cost of lugging it up to their homes (about 2-3x what it costs in Cusco).
We were treated to a beautiful, full moon night, with the sound of the creek running below.
Day 2 (8.2 miles; 6,082 AEG)
After a decent night's rest, we were up by 5 a.m. and, following breakfast, were on the trail by 6. We were the first group out of camp, which allowed us to enjoy more solitude on the trail.
Day 2 is the hardest day of the trip, which begins with a relentless climb to Warmiwanusca Pass ("Dead Woman's Pass"), which at just shy of 14,000 is named for the outline of the surrounding ridgeline, which apparently looks like a woman lying in repose. I had a hard time seeing it at first, but I'm also the guy who looks at constellations and says: Yeah, those stars look just like a scorpion ... that is, as long as my smartphone app draws a scorpion around them.
We made good time to the pass, and despite being well over the altitude of Humphreys (my wife's previous altitude mark), we were all feeling relatively good. After a break, photos, and a Quechuan ceremony led by Raul, we headed down the backside of the pass to what was to be our day 2 camp spot, where we arrived at lunchtime. Normally, lunch is held on the way up to the pass, but we opted to press forward with the hope of exploring the option of re-negotiating our camping location with the "gooberment" people.
After lunch, Raul returned from his chat with the gooberment and laid out an intriguing new option: We could finish the 4-day trek in 3-days; spend our 3rd night in Aguas Calientes (the the town at the base of Machu Picchu) at a restaurant owned by a friend of Raul's; and then return to Machu Picchu on the morning of our 4th day and explore MP and Huayna Picchu to our heart's content.
We were immediately on board, though that meant heading out from lunch and packing on some more miles, including covering the next pass (at 13,000 ft) before descending to our new camp 2 site at Quoricancha. No prob. Let's do this.
This plan adjustment also had the beneficial impact of separating us further from the other groups on the trail, and we hiked most of the remainder of Day 2 in solitude, passing three more sets of ruins (Runkurakay, Sayamarka, and Qonchamarka) before arriving at our new camp site just as darkness descended. Sayamarka is a larger complex that sits on an outcropping with expansive views of the valley below. Clouds wafted in and around the valley below as the sun set over the scene, painting the ruins and surrounding mountains in light and shadow. I was completely overcome with awe and emotion at the scene (not something I'm generally prone to) and experienced that surreal feeling of disbelief that I am actually here, in this moment, taking in these incredible views in this amazing place. I get chills again just writing about it. I tried to capture the moment in photos, but fell woefully short (sorry).
Day 3 (8.9 miles; 1,720 AEG)
Our night 2 camp was on a hilltop across a ravine from Sayamarka, which was beautiful to behold in the morning light as we readied for our third and final day on the trail.
The first several miles out of camp on Day 3 were my favorite of the trip. We hovered around 12,000 feet and were blown away by the views of the surrounding glacier-tipped mountains--the most prominent of which is Salkantay, towering nearby at 20,574 feet), as well as tons of high-jungle vegetation and low-lying clouds filling and filtering the light onto the mountainsides and valley below, which was dotted by the occasional sounds and sight of glacier-fed waterfalls.
After an hour or two of hiking, we rounded the third "pass" at 12,000 ft., where our third night campsite was originally planned and looked down on the Phuyapatamarka Ruins. An impressive set of ruins, I decided it must have been strictly the views that prompted the Incas to build communities is such remote locations ....
After Phuyapatamarka, it is essentially downhill from there. We visited one more impressive set of ruins at Intipata (which stands out in stark contrast on the steep side of the mountain, surrounded by the dense foliage of the high jungle) on the way to lunch. Then it was on to the Intipunku, aka the "Sun Gate," which is a small structure/ruin at the top of a pass around the mountain, where the Machu Picchu complex first comes into view, several hundred feet and a mile or so distant below.
The views from the Sun Gate are impressive, as is aptly displayed on the cover of most books about Peru. After gobs of photos, we continued the trek down to MP itself, entering the highest, southern end of the complex. Saving our tour and exploring for the next day, we caught the tourist bus from the ruins and rode down the Auguas Calientes. Spent the night in the restaurant/pub "Machu Pisco," after closing down the place and clearing some tables for our sleeping bags. Actual flushing toilets were a plus (especially for my wife and daughter :-)).
Day 4: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
We awoke at 4:30 a.m. to head back to the bus station for the ride back up to the ruins. The line for the buses was already about a mile long (no joke) by 5 a.m., with the first buses heading up at 5:30. The entire town was essentially lined up to see the ruins. Adding to the foreign crowd, apparently entrance is free for Peruvians on Sunday (which it was), so we were in for a bit of a Disneyland type experience.
Actually, the buses were constant and managed to move folks up to the ruins in pretty good time. And MP is a pretty big complex, so it handled the crowds fairly well. Also, the "Peruvian NPS" imposes a "one-way" traffic rule on most of the pathways through the ruins, which keeps the traffic jams to a minimum (but also is a pain in the rear when you realize you passed the point where you were supposed to reconnect with your wife and daughter and can't reverse course to get back to them. ).
The crowds distracted a bit from the experience, but not as much as I feared, thankfully. Also, we were able to secure passes to hike Huayna Picchu (the imposing mountain behind the MP complex that is visible in most photos of MP, and on top of which are additional ruins). Access to HP is limited to 400 people per day, sent up in two groups during separate time windows. Although 200 is a lot, once spread out on the trail--which is about 1.5 miles and 1,400 AEG from the MP complex--there is some relative solitude to be had in spots.
The views from HP are impressive and well worth the extra effort of the climb.
On the way back down, there is another offshoot path up to Huchuypicchu, which is a smaller prominence off to the NW of MP complex. I couldn't resist giving this one a go as well. Glad I did, as I was literally the only one on that trail, which leads to another cool overlook of the MP complex below.
One other option with the HP pass, which I didn't realize existed till I got there, is a loop hike around HP, which leads to a large cave. I didn't have the additional couple of hours needed to do it (or willing hiking partners :-)), but I'll bet no more than a small handful of the daily 400 entrants opts for that path. So, there's where the solitude is to be found ....
After having our fill of MP, we returned to Aguas Calientes, had some dinner in the restaurant and decided to check out the hot springs before our train ride home. We hadn't packed our swimsuits, but there are several vendors that "rent" swimsuits and towels. My wife and daughter were a bit grossed out by the prospect of a rented swimsuit, but they plugged their noses and sportingly went along (after doing their own scrubbing with soap and water, and extracting from me a "no-photos" promise) .
The springs were, well, warm, but nothing all that spectacular. Indeed, some of the locals were using them to take showers (lathering soap under their swimsuits), etc., resulting in the only views of this trip that I frankly wish I could forget.
I guess I can't complain too much, as I suppose I left several days of my own trail grime there ....
Anywhoo, after a change of clothes and return of the swimsuit rentals, we hit the train and bus back to Cusco, fully satisfied to have checked off another huge bucket-list item: the Inca Trail!